Chicago — In this competitive world, it is widely assumed that everyone is racing to be No. 1. Whoever doesn't make it, like Avis, presumably tries harder. But here in Illinois, a full year before the 1982 elections, a growing gaggle of candidates is lining up at the starting gate to vie, not for the state's top job, but for the No. 2 lieutenant governor slot.
It is a job which its last occupant, David C. O'Neal, left vacant Aug. 1 on grounds there was really not enough for him to do to justify his $45,500 salary and to keep his 17 staff members busy. Suggesting the post should either be strengthened or abolished, he observed: ''A person of average intelligence could learn the job in a week.''
But instead of a massive move to amend the state constitution to delete the office or beef up its duties under the law, Illinois residents have witnessed a busy and eager lineup of candidates who say they not only want the job but are sure it can be made a meaningful one. So far, entrants include four conservative Republicans, each aiming to run alongside GOP Gov. Jim Thompson once the primary fray is past, and three Democrats.
The candidates have plenty of ideas on what they think the job - which now includes such chores as chairing the Abandoned Mine Lands Council - should involve. Illinois House Speaker George H. Ryan (R) of Kankakee, a pharmacist who has Governor Thompson's nod as his preferred running mate, says he would like to serve as senior adviser to the governor, as special liaison to the Legislature, and aid in budget preparation.
State Sen. Donald L. Totten (R) of suburban Chicago, who managed President Reagan's Illinois campaigns in 1976 and 1980 and is considered the other major Republican front-runner, has said that the duties of the office would depend on the governor, but admits the job appealed to him because of its ''few restrictions.'' Indeed, Senator Totten wants the job enough that he plans to spend more than $1 million in his campaign to get it.
Governor Thompson, who has frequently clashed with the candidate in legislative sessions, has said he suspects that Totten wants the post as a springboard from which to challenge Sen. Charles Percy (R) in 1984.
State Sen. Kenneth Buzbee (D) of Carbondale, the first Democrat in the race, has accused the Thompson administration of effectively eliminating the constitutionally established position by ''arrogance'' and ''political selfishness.'' In his view, Mr. O'Neal's complaint is a ''telling indictment'' of that administration's brand of ''political cronyism.''
Candidates must file for the spot by -December, and a March 16 primary will determine who runs alongside the gubernatorial candidate from each party in the November 1982 state election.
Not all states have a lieutenant governor. Nine have none or have assigned the duties to another official. In Tennessee, the speaker of the Senate doubles as lieutenant governor when the need arises. And in most states which maintain the position, the debate continues as to just what duties are involved.
In practice, says Jim Nowlan, a political science professor at the University of Illinois and himself a one-time candidate for the slot, governors generally have been assigning more duties to the post.
In Illinois, for example, the job of presiding over the state Senate was deleted from the lieutenant governor's responsibilities a decade ago, and the constitution now requires him to be a member of the same party as the governor. In some states, party differences have led to squabbles.
There are still many who think that there is no better way to define the job than by assigning it specific duties under the law. Indiana Lt. Gov. John Mutz, who by law heads up the state commerce department with responsibilities ranging from agriculture to economic development, says it helps to have a governor ''who wants to use your talents.'' But, as he told this reporter during a recent visit to Chicago, ''a governor may have good intentions, but I really think the statutory way (of defining the role) is the route to go.''